Protecting the rights of foreign domestic helpers

March 28, 2019 12:55
The work of foreign domestic helpers has enabled many married women to join the work force, thereby contributing to the growth of Hong Kong's economy. Photo: HKEJ

Last Sunday, I was invited by the Philippine Consulate General to talk to over 50 foreign domestic workers about their legal rights in Hong Kong as well as loan traps targeting foreign maids.

At the meeting, I listened to their stories about poor living conditions, irregular working hours and employers who asked them to work beyond their defined duties.

Currently, there are about 390,000 foreign domestic workers in the city. They help support Hong Kong households by performing their domestic chores and responsibilities to their host families.

Their work has enabled married women to join the workforce. As a result, the female workforce in Hong Kong has increased to 54.8 percent in 2016 from 47.8 percent in 1996.

The quality of life has improved while our economy has benefited considerably.

While Hong Kong households are able to hire domestic help at an affordable cost, these foreign workers also receive higher pay than what they could earn in their home countries. It's a win-win situation.

As a major importer of labor, Hong Kong has the responsibility to provide better support and protection to these workers, and make sure they are protected by Hong Kong laws. This is important in curbing exploitation.

Our government has been taking measures to address such problems. 

For example, there have been cases where foreign domestic workers were deceived by recruitment agencies, forced to pay exorbitant fees, and even caught in debt traps to pay off those fees.

To tackle this issue, the Legislative Council in February passed the Employment (Amendment) Bill, increasing the penalty for those who levy exorbitant fees and commissions from these workers, as well as those who operate unlicensed recruitment agencies.

The legislation also grants the Labor Department the power to refuse to issue licenses or revoke the licenses of those who violate the law.

What’s more, it provides for the setting up of a legally binding code of conduct to govern recruitment agencies.

It is understood that the Labour Department has actively enforced these laws to deter exploitative agencies, and have increased inspections of these agencies, recording about 2,000 inspections a year.

I will continue to follow up the matter with the government and gather statistics regarding the prosecution of violators of the law as well as evaluate the effectiveness of current measures to protect foreign domestic helpers.

The living conditions of foreign domestics are also a matter of concern. There are cases where they are made to sleep in bathrooms, kitchens or tiny windowless rooms, which are sometimes called "coffin rooms".

This is inhumane, a big blow to the workers’ dignity. I understand that the lack of living space is a serious problem for many families in Hong Kong, and those who hire domestics may be living in tiny rooms themselves.

However, they must also remember that it is their legal duty to provide reasonable and suitable accommodation for their workers, as well as to respect their privacy.

If they are unable to do so, I think the government should explore ways to allow for more flexible arrangements between the employer and the employee. For example, we should explore whether it is possible for the agencies to offer dormitories for the workers, or to allow the domestics to seek their own accommodation. Such measures will open up more options for both parties

People are also becoming increasingly aware of the need to provide adequate medical protection for foreign domestics.

Under current laws, employers must buy medical insurance for their domestic helpers and shoulder medical fees that may arise during their service period.

This should be seen as the domestic's human right as much as the employer's legal obligation. In fact, there is an abundant variety of medical protection packages in the market, including medical insurance for domestic workers.

Overall, Hong Kong people should maintain a mutually beneficial, long-term partnership with foreign domestic workers, and the best way to do that is to create a friendly working environment for these workers.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on March 26

Translation by Jennifer Wong

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Member of Legislative Council (Functional Constituency – Accountancy)